A personal philosophy of planning
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There is abundant literature concerning specific topics within project management, planning, scheduling and progress measurement, but much less about the overall philosophy guiding the use of our tools and techniques. However, a workable philosophy is more important and more valuable than any specific technique.
This summarizes things I have found to be true so far, and hence my philosophy of planning.
- The essence of planning is to pause before starting an activity to consider how best it is to be done. This should be (but often is not) applied to “How will we accomplish the task of planning?” In other words, preplan all planning! A principle of Total Quality Management is determine what has to be done before you start (pithily expressed by James Bent as “Scope, Scope, Scope”).
- We all have egos, but (believe it or not) work goes better without considering whether it will make us look good or bad. Focus on the work, not on self.
- It has been said that not to have fun at work is a tragedy. Take pleasure in doing every task well. Hurrying and poorly done work is the enemy not only of quality, but also of fun. This includes checking everything before it is issued.
- Credibility is indispensable; without it the best work is meaningless, as it will not be acted upon. If credibility is lost at any time, regaining it becomes the top priority.
- When faced with a problem, ask how the company handled it before; do not invent a new approach lightly.
- When information is needed, especially from several people, give them fill-in-the-blank forms. Otherwise they will interpret differently what you said you wanted, and you will have to go back to them to clarify their answers.
- Do not be lured into giving preliminary results; these tend to be accorded higher status than they should, and when actual, checked results come out (often significantly different from the preliminary ones), any differences will reflect badly (though unjustly) on your credibility.
- When something bad happens it is a great opportunity for learning. Ask, “How can we prevent this from happening again?” Indeed, one should welcome any problem with positive interest.
- There is a tendency to be overly optimistic in the early (and middle) stages of a project in order to defer pain as much as possible, hoping it might go away. A common result is for projects to end somewhat badly, with some acrimony from the client. A better policy is to “take pain early.” If it looks as if the project will be a month late, say so as early as possible, and “take your lumps.” If the project is a month late, the client may well appreciate your accurate forecasting; if it is only two weeks late, the client may be pleased; but if you said nothing, the client will probably be displeased.
- While the planner's role is crucial to successful planning, so is the role of project management. They should ask the execution personnel, “Do YOU agree with this schedule?” If they do not, it should be rejected. After such agreement, adherence must be expected, and any deviations must be questioned with “What did you do to avoid that delay?” This closes the loop from planning to execution. If planning is not followed by accountability, it will be of little value.
- Meetings are the main action of project management; be very willing to call a meeting. Become knowledgeable on the techniques for effective meetings.
- Appreciate the level of accuracy in the information you are dealing with. For instance, the second decimal place in the progress percentage is usually meaningless. The accuracy required is “that which will assist management to make the correct decisions” (note that credibility is also vital to achieve this). It is important for reasons of credibility that all reports are consistent. For example, if progress is reported on one sheet as 65.17 percent and on another as 65.19 percent, even though the difference is not significant, they must be made equal, which can be done simply by printing them both as 65.2 percent.
- It is not enough to give project team managers a barchart, S-curves, and other symbolic representations of the plan. They should be given a brief narrative (or verbal presentation) of the factors and reasoning behind the plan. This will assist them in becoming intelligent contributors to the success of the project.
- Procedures should be written for people who do not yet know how to do the work in question. They should be concise, almost conversational. Timetables showing each step of the procedure are also helpful.
Planning and Scheduling
- Except when a project's activities relate to single deliverables (which is not usually the case), Critical Path Method and PERT are poor at modeling the actual work involved. A CPM network is a helpful tool for thinking through the relationships within a project at the initial stages, provided it is the project team and management as well as the planner who are doing the thinking. When the project is in progress, monthly CPM analysis is often a pure waste (except when major replanning has to be done).
- The unsatisfactory performance of CPM is part of the larger issue of C/SCSC performance. To quote the Construction Industry Institute, “C/SCSC…monitors cost and work through a cost control system…costs do not flow into a project in a timely manner, thus a work control system based on cost is not timely” (CII publication 1–6, page 24).
- A project in progress is better controlled by monitoring production of deliverables.
- Resource leveling is far better done “consciously” (i.e., manually) than by computer in order that the tradeoffs are all known, rational, and can be agreed to.
- A look-ahead (e.g., for six weeks, done once a month) is planning, not scheduling. (The semantics of what is a plan and what is a schedule could of course be argued.) The project team should be brought together to do this. Updating progress is usually not sufficient.
- All tasks should be planned to start only when a sufficient backlog of the prerequisites (drawings, material, resources, etc.) have become available. Resist the tendency to assume that work can start as soon as the first drawing, the first load of pipe, etc., is delivered. Otherwise the activity will stutter along, depending upon the delivery, and deliveries will nearly always be somewhat irregular.
- While a plan can be made at any stage of a project, the accuracy of it will depend upon the amount of information available. If an accurate plan is required, stand up for delaying the planning until enough of the required data is at hand.
- Planning can realistically proceed only when strategies have been developed by management. It may be necessary to demand that management articulate the strategy for the project in order to be able to draw a good plan.
- Prioritizing always seems like a good idea, but it can have a downside. Facilities may be underused if, in the early stages, one has planned to do only the higher priority work. Lower priority items should be allowed to be “slotted in” so as to keep production facilities (fabrication shop, engineering office, etc.) fully utilized.
- When technology, methodology, or strategies are new or unfamiliar, more frequent replanning (not just revising) will be required.
- Barcharts can be disempowering tools, since they imply that individual or group day-to-day activities need to be controlled by superiors. Sometimes this is true, but often it may be better simply to define the timing of the deliverables (with, for instance, an S-curve or a list) required from that group and leave it to them how they structure their work.
- How plans are issued is as important as how they are developed. The distribution, timeliness, comprehensiveness, conciseness, format, and consistency of a plan greatly affects how it will be used.
- The planner should never bully someone into promising to complete a task by a certain time. There is no reality in such a forecast and lies should not be allowed on the schedule. The person's realistic forecast should be accepted and reported to management, who must take the necessary steps to change conditions so that the task can be completed on time.
- Progress and all status reports should be as concise as possible. A multipage report is less likely to be read than a shorter one. Thus, it is better that such reports mainly include “exception” items (those where the plan is not being followed).
- Credibility in progress reporting is created by (1) previewing results with supervision one-on-one before issue, (2) avoiding competing or duplicate reporting systems, (3) changing the reporting base only rarely, and (4) being timely (reports more than 72 hours after cutoff may as well be shelved as issued).
- It is more important to eliminate systematic error (i.e., bias) than to improve accuracy. This is because the positives and negatives of non-systematic error (i.e., inaccuracy) have a strong tendency to cancel each other out, unlike systematic error.
The above items are part of my personal philosophy. I will have omitted points that some will think essential and included points that others may regard as unimportant. Nevertheless, I believe this type of information could be of value to others in our profession.
Andrew Smith is director of quality for the Delta Catalytic Corporation in Calgary, Alberta. He has had the privilege of making mistakes of larger and deeper scope on a wide variety of projects, some of which he has even learned from.
PM Network ● June 1995